A great wave of encouragement surged through me when I heard that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons/ICAN had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and I’m still feeling the effects. Of the 21 British partner organisations of the campaign I’m a paid-up member of five. It’s good to know there are so many more, here and in 100 other countries.
As with landmines in 1997, we now have reason to hope that nuclear weapons — stigmatised and delegitimized by the new Ban Treaty — are on the way out. It won’t happen overnight. Even when the Nuclear Weapon States and those which choose to shelter under a nuclear umbrella see the wisdom of choosing abolition, disarmament to zero will require careful verification and monitoring.
As an ecumenically-minded Christian, I’m particularly happy that Pax Christi, Quaker Peace & Social Witness and Christian CND (three of my five ICAN partners) have warmly welcomed the treaty as have most other mainstream churches.
Our government’s position is not easy to understand: in favour of multilateral disarmament but resolved never to “sign, ratify or become a party to” this treaty, with the votes of 122 countries in support of it.
The Holy See was one of the first three states to ratify the treaty. As the Pope said in a message of encouragement to the negotiators in March, “If we take into consideration the principal threats to peace and security… for example, terrorism, asymmetrical conflicts, cyber-security, environmental problems, poverty, not a few doubts arise regarding the inadequacy of nuclear deterrence as an effective response to such challenges.”
The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN has given a most wonderful and unexpected boost to our campaign, not least because of the publicity it has generated. The UK media had routinely ignored the fact that our campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons is an international campaign, preferring instead to concentrate on the party political implications of the renewal of Trident (deplorably equated to being ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ on defence in the media narrative). ICAN originated ten years ago in Australia in association with International Physicians Against Nuclear War, but it has grown to encompass a host of other peace groups, including our own CND.
The recent death of Sheila Knight was sudden but not unexpected as she had been in ill-health for some time — indeed she never really recovered from her prolonged stay in hospital last year. Sheila was a member of our Steering Group and a loyal supporter of our monthly Peace Table and Vigil for Peace until travelling by public transport from her home on the borders of Tooting became too much for her. We remember with affection how she re-learned to knit at the time of the Great Pink Peace Scarf (Aldermaston to Burghfield: 7 miles), persevering despite numerous dropped stitches and unexpected holes. She then developed quite a taste for knitting and undertook many other creative projects.
Sheila was a committed Quaker, making the weekly journey to the Wimbledon Meeting House in Spencer Hill Rd. Her career as a professional social worker was combined with many years of service to the Labour Party and voluntary work for a network of mental health charities: she was Chair of Merton Mind for 25 years and remained Director of the Springfield Advice and Law Centre until she died. She was a Councillor from 1964–8 and 1971–2010 (Mayor from 1997–8) and was a passionate advocate of fairness and equality, always fighting on behalf of Mitcham’s place within the borough of Merton.
We last saw her at the WDC/CND AGM and Garden Party in August when she once again stood for election to the Steering Committee. She died ‘in harness’ as she would have wished.
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Alison Williams and I (representing Merton UNA and WDC/CND) met with Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond in his surgery on October 20th and had a courteous and friendly exchange of views, focussing chiefly on the new Ban Treaty and its implications, plus of course the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN. Alison introduced our position by summarising the statements from the UK churches on the subject in the hopes that as a Christian he would relate to these moral arguments, all of which call for a new paradigm of “common security” not based upon military strategy alone. Stephen was aware of the Ban Treaty but had not yet read it, so we presented him with a copy (which he promised to read.)
It was then my turn to go into more detail about the technicalities: the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the failure to proceed since 1968, the new UN General Assembly initiative (the three Humanitarian Conferences and the Austrian Pledge to “fill the legal gap”) and finally the Ban Treaty itself, agreed at the UN on July 7th and open for signature from September 20th. The new Treaty bans the use, stockpiling, testing, production, manufacture, stationing and installation of nuclear weapons — a comprehensive, multilateral ban. There is a clear mechanism for nuclear-armed states to sign up (without being required to disarm immediately): by signing up they would be agreeing to enter into negotiations on a timescale for the destruction of their stockpiles.
We confronted him with Michael Fallon’s statement in Parliament (“The UK will never sign, ratify or become party to the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons...”) and Stephen promised to write to his colleague asking him to explain the rationale behind such didacticism. We quoted the Nobel Committee statement that the Committee “is aware that an international legal prohibition will not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon... and the next steps must involve the nuclear-armed states”. “This year’s Peace Prize is therefore a call upon these states to initiate serious negotiations with a view to [their] gradual, balanced and carefully monitored elimination.”
We told Stephen that we were very disturbed by the combined decision of the nuclear weapons states to boycott the UN negotiations, and especially the spectacle of the UK ambassador standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US ambassador outside the conference chamber delivering an alternative press conference ridiculing the whole process. We questioned whether such blind loyalty to policy decisions by the US (“especially under the current régime”) was necessarily wise.
We were all agreed that “informed multilateral attempts at nuclear disarmament” were needed (and it was interesting that on this occasion at least, Stephen did not attempt to justify ‘the deterrent’ as having “kept the peace for 70 years”). His argument was that the UK should not take part in negotiations if “certain other states are not coming” i.e. a meaningful process will not start until every country agrees to take part. We reminded him that the Netherlands had sent a representative to the 2017 negotiations, despite being a NATO state and under the US ‘umbrella’, because of public pressure. In Stephen’s view it was worse to take part in negotiations with the intention of voting against a treaty than not to take part at all. (We had to agree to disagree.)
We cited the example of the treaties against biological and chemical weapons which are still occasionally flouted but which have succeeded in establishing new international norms — and in particular the landmines treaty, which despite not being universally ratified has resulted in the almost complete disappearance of landmines as acceptable weapons of war. (The US may not have ratified the treaty but it is no longer manufacturing landmines, the bottom having dropped out of the market!)
Finding ourselves in something of a circular argument, we asked Stephen if he could suggest what first steps the UK could take to break out of the impasse; perhaps the UK could lead by example from within the ‘nuclear club’? Perhaps as a small positive step, the UK could give a commitment to attend future Ban review conferences? (No answer on that one.)
Finally, we found we could all agree on the dangers of nuclear accident, whether caused by human fallibility or mechanical failure. Stephen was already aware of the rôle of Col. Petrov in averting nuclear disaster during the height of he Cold War [see October Newsletter], and it was Stephen himself who pointed out that in emergent nuclear states we might assume that safety procedures were less rigorous than our own.
The big unanswered question remained: what do we do about it?
The concert on October 6th was an unforgettable experience. “We have two of the most talented musicians in the country performing for us tonight,” said MPD chair Tony Lamb in his introduction, and this was no exaggeration. Tenor Nicky Spence’s stage rôles include both Mozart and Wagner and the evening’s programme displayed his remarkable vocal and expressive range, with accompanist Roger Vignoles (an MPD patron) demonstrating from the very first note what makes him one of the world’s great accompanists.
Two rarities with an overtly antiwar theme deserve to be better known: “Who are these children?”, a late cycle by Benjamin Britten, and a setting by Kurt Weil of Walt Whitman’s American civil war poems made during Weil’s WWII exile in the USA. The Britten cycle dates from 1969 and is a slightly strange mixture of homely Scottish dialect (“bairns’ song”) and bleakly serious poems by the same author (William Soutar) identifying children as the true victims of war: “Death came out of the sky in the bright afternoon” and “the blood of children corrupts the heart of men”, the spare vocal line supported by a constantly shifting descriptive accompaniment.
Roger Quilter’s 3 Shakespeare Songs Op 6 came as a welcome relief after all this intensity and the recital ended with two Richard Strauss favourites, “Morgen” (with its gloriously extended piano introduction and postlude) and “Cäcilie” delivered with Wagnerian volume and passion. The interval speaker was Wendy Harler of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
The next date for your diary is Friday November 24th, 7·30pm at St James Piccadilly, when conductor Jane Glover will direct the MPD chamber orchestra in Bach, Mozart and Handel, with two soloists from the renowned Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian and Susie Mészáros) in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola.
Please get in touch if you would like to join a WDC/CND group booking to see a performance of Michael Mears’ much-praised one man show about conscription in World War I on December 2nd at Wandsworth Quaker Meeting House, part of a national tour. Contact William Rhind: email@example.com
Prof. Qumsiyeh is visiting the UK this autumn to talk on environmental protection and human rights in Palestine, having returned there after many years in academia in the USA. Despite a busy schedule speaking at Oxford University, SOAS and in Parliament, he has found time to visit Wimbledon. This meeting has been arranged at short notice but for those of you who receive your Newsletter before the end of October it is an opportunity not to be missed. Entry to the event is free but Prof. Qumsiyeh has asked for donations to the Bethlehem Museum of Natural History. Tuesday 31st October, 8pm, Merton Arts Space, Wimbledon Library.
Remembrance Sunday falls on November 12th this year and we shall once again be laying our red and white wreath as part of the civic ceremony at the Wimbledon War Memorial and holding our own brief ‘never again’ commemoration after the end of the official proceedings. White poppies will be available at the vigil and on the Peace Table, or phone 020 8543 0362.
Several months ago Alison took tentative steps to organise a public reading of the play “Common Women” by Jill Truman but the General Election intervened. We have now booked a room in the William Morris Halls for March 9th and we hope that this date is far enough in advance to take priority in all diaries. Please get in touch if you are interested: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please support our Barn Dance at St Andrew’s Church on November 3rd. This is a joint venture with the St Andrew’s congregation on the first anniversary of the death of their priest Rev. Andrew Wakefield. We shall celebrate the life of a committed Christian dedicated to public service and international understanding — and raise money for the charity ‘Médecins sans Frontières’, which strives to offer medical help wherever it is needed, regardless of creed or nationality. Some tickets are still available to be purchased on the door, but it would be a great help if you can phone in advance (020 8543 0362) to give notice to the catering team.